Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Death of a Fisherman in a Place of Good Water


Published: August 19, 2007


AMAGANSETT, N.Y.



The eulogies at Calvin Lester’s funeral were mostly about small acts, not big thoughts.

The time he and his friend, Billy Havens, ages 11 and 12, bought a 1954 Ford for $25, ripped the doors and fenders off and turned it into a dune buggy. His daughter Kelly’s remembrances of the bliss of being with her dad salvaging lobster gear after a storm off Gardiners Island.

“I just keep thinking he hated it when I cried,” his daughter’s eulogy read. “He doesn’t want us to cry over him. We have to pick up the pieces and carry on and keep fishing.”

But there were lots of tears this month when they parked Calvin Lester’s fishing dory outside the funeral home in East Hampton and buried him at the age of 54. There were tears because he died of cancer way too young, tears because he was so good at what he did — probably the best bayman of the past 30 years, someone, it was said, who could drag a scallop dredge down a driveway and have it come up full of scallops.

And there were tears because everyone knew that when they buried Calvin Lester, they buried the most powerful link to the Hamptons’ fishing past, the person most at home in the disappearing world of South Fork baymen that was recounted in “Men’s Lives,” Peter Matthiessen’s 1986 book.

Amagansett means “place of good water” in one American Indian tongue, and for generations of Lesters who have lived here, it’s been true in the most literal way.

The eulogies at Calvin Lester’s funeral were mostly about small acts, not big thoughts.

The time he and his friend, Billy Havens, ages 11 and 12, bought a 1954 Ford for $25, ripped the doors and fenders off and turned it into a dune buggy. His daughter Kelly’s remembrances of the bliss of being with her dad salvaging lobster gear after a storm off Gardiners Island.

“I just keep thinking he hated it when I cried,” his daughter’s eulogy read. “He doesn’t want us to cry over him. We have to pick up the pieces and carry on and keep fishing.”

But there were lots of tears this month when they parked Calvin Lester’s fishing dory outside the funeral home in East Hampton and buried him at the age of 54. There were tears because he died of cancer way too young, tears because he was so good at what he did — probably the best bayman of the past 30 years, someone, it was said, who could drag a scallop dredge down a driveway and have it come up full of scallops.

And there were tears because everyone knew that when they buried Calvin Lester, they buried the most powerful link to the Hamptons’ fishing past, the person most at home in the disappearing world of South Fork baymen that was recounted in “Men’s Lives,” Peter Matthiessen’s 1986 book.

Amagansett means “place of good water” in one American Indian tongue, and for generations of Lesters who have lived here, it’s been true in the most literal way.


Calvin Lester’s father, Captain Bill Lester, fished well into his 80s. When he said, “Just as long as I can crawl, I’m going down there,” he could have been reciting the family creed. The Matthiessen book told of another family patriarch, Ted Lester, Calvin’s uncle, who, even when he was near death, “still had to jump into the car every damn morning, run down and make sure that ocean was still there.”

Calvin Lester quit school at 16 to fish full time. He learned from his father and others about tides and wind, where to find weakfish, bluefish and striped bass, how to operate fyke traps, pound traps and drift gill nets, and most important, how to run a five-man crew that set the ocean haul seines that were most effective in netting striped bass, the baymen’s money fish.

This was about skill, strength, knowledge and cunning. But it was also very much about a way of life. So he became, in some ways, the last of the Bonackers, the East End natives, born of the sea. When the Lost Tribe of Accabonac was formed in 1984 to bring together natives of East Hampton, he became its president. When people looked for the consummate fisherman, someone who could catch any fish, find clams, oysters, scallops or lobsters when the season was right, that was Calvin Lester, too.

It was never an easy life, with mornings that began at 3 and seasons that bore no resemblance to the gentle rhythms of the tourist economy. And members of the tribe feel it’s a life that’s been under assault for decades with restrictions on netting, rising costs for everything from gas to land. To him and others the harshest blow came in 1990 when the state banned ocean seines to catch striped bass, which many saw as a death blow to small fishermen.

Twenty years ago there were about 150 people working as full-time baymen. Now there are perhaps 20. His older children, Danny, 34, and Kelly, 30, do it part time. His youngest son, Paul, 28, it is said, could end up the last full-time bayman standing.

“It made him a bitter person,” Kelly said. “But he didn’t sit and cry. He had bills to pay and a family to support and he did what he had to do to stay on the water. And he was very proud that he could make a living on the water no matter what.”

HE was, everyone said, a man of few words, who took care of others before he took care of himself — witness the cigarette invariably dangling from his mouth. But his work and the life he led spoke for him. So, like his father, he went to the sea to the end, bringing in fish from the pound traps the weekend before he died.

“Calvin had an extraordinary connection to nature, to the sea, to the creatures who lived in it,” said Arnold Leo, who worked with him in the East Hampton Town Baymen’s Association. “He represented a strain of spiritual awareness and communal values, which we’re losing contact with every day.”

Calvin Lester, he said, was more than the embodiment of a quaint way of life that has to go because hedge fund managers need places to build houses on the beach. He was the embodiment of a set of skills, a turn of mind, a connection with nature that we lose at great cost.

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com

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